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Crossbones, By Nuruddin Farah

The latest novel by Somalia's great story-teller sends exiles back to a nation in free-fall

Crossbones, Somali writer Nuruddin Farah's latest novel, opens with a mistake. "Young Thing" – a recruit to the military wing of the Union of Islamic Courts in control of Mogadishu – becomes lost on his mission to establish a safe house. He enters the wrong building and as a result both the occupier, a man old enough to be his grandfather, and he are summarily shot. Farah's main character observes that "in fiction death serves a purpose". But this is a novel about the senselessness of civil war, in which characters are killed without warning. It is a lament to the futility of Somalia's suffering.

In this final installment of the Past Imperfect trilogy, Farah explores the lives of two brothers – Malik and Ahl. Born in the diaspora, Malik has travelled to Somalia as a freelance journalist to write about the ongoing political unrest alongside (perhaps more marketable) tales of piracy. His elder brother Ahl makes a journey to the self-governed region of Puntland in search of his lost stepson, thought to have joined the Islamic militia.

We revisit characters from the previous novels – Malik's step-father Jeebleh, for example, was the subject of Links. But this latest work, which can also be read as a standalone text, shifts in focus away from Farah's own age group to the next generation of Somalis, whose lives have been marked by Mohamed Siad Barre's dictatorship and the subsequent civil war. Although Farah is known for his sensitive and resolutely feminist depictions of Somali women, this is a male-centered novel, exploring the nuances of relationships between fathers and sons, brothers and colleagues.

It also offers a delicate exploration of the challenges inherent in diasporic identity: the difficulties faced by the American-Somali brothers who don't immediately grasp the nuances of family networks or the dangers of a city at war. As a result the novel is characterised by misunderstandings, confusion, fears and dreams.

The younger brother Malik is a particularly disturbing figure. While he professes admiration for the bravery of his journalist colleagues, he dismisses their work as unprofessional. This, combined with the arrogant demands he makes of his sympathetically intelligent fixer Qasiir, leads the reader to question his respect for Somalis who remain in the country. Filtered through Malik's viewpoint, how realistic is the account of Mogadishu the reader receives? Farah deftly demonstrates how his country's complexity is obscured when translated for the external world.

The Somalia Farah does present is resolutely global, entangled with international concerns. Italian rule has left multiple legacies: from spaghetti lunches to Farah's preferred spelling of the capital as "Mogadscio". But Crossbones suggests that in North East Africa the Muslim world now carries the greatest influence. Set during the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, the novel also critiques Somalia's neighboring countries and US involvement in the region. The transnational connections are deep-rooted. Both politicians and pirates are depicted as intertwined through networks of criminality and their allegiance to international paymasters. Those that suffer most are the impoverished Somalis without access to external funds.

More than 40 years ago, Farah's first novel From a Crooked Rib described Mogadishu as "a nice place but full of wicked people". Civil war has destroyed Somalia's capital, no longer the "pearl of the Indian Ocean". Farah offers us a cast of patiently drawn characters responding to the relentlessness of Somali violence. The ruined buildings are echoed in the degradation of the protagonists' bodies as they are wounded and fall ill. Crossbones is a novel of despair and dismay, but it demonstrates yet again Farah's unwavering commitment to a people who endure.

Zoe Norridge teaches English at York University

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